Terry Richardson and the Many Degrees of Consent

July 9, 2014
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The mention of the name Terry Richardson all of a sudden tends to have a negative connotation for a lot of people. Such is the fate of alleged sexual predators; a tag that’s far from easy to remove once it’s settled, and one that can outlive that of a very talented, groundbreaking photographer.

A story by Benjamin Wallace in the New York Magazine last month raised some good questions, both for and against Richardson.

Consent is, in principle, a very simple concept. You either agree to do something or you don’t. I think a lot of dudes feel this way – myself included, till somewhat recently. If you’re not really forcing anyone to do something, there should be no stigma or backlash about it, right?

Terry Richardson and the Many Degrees of Consent

Perhaps. But a lot of debate on the subject – not just because of Richardson – has been around in popular culture this year. And one thing I’ve learned is that there seem to be many more degrees to consent than I was aware of; and many times we fail to see that because we’re in the middle of a self-absorbed need to get what we want. Most of us have done that to some degree. I bet we can all recall a moment when we were slightly pushy or insistent with someone we were attracted to, and even if it didn’t escalate any further than that, we’ve all likely made a woman uncomfortable through sexual advances at some point of our lives. Maybe we were drunk, maybe we were depressed, maybe we misread signals, or maybe we read them correctly but failed to notice other things.

My point is Terry Richardson’s situation has got me thinking of all the times we, as straight males, can inadvertently put a woman in an awkward, vulnerable position. It might be the farthest thing from our minds, but it doesn’t make it any easier from a woman’s perspective, and because we know ourselves and we’re aware our intentions are in no way harmful, we don’t take these with the seriousness they might require. Sometimes they don’t, either. It’s hard to overcome patterns we grew up with and accepted long ago.

It’s a confusing world. We’re constantly encouraged to shoot for the things we want. That’s society for you: a place where go-getters succeed; where those who settle don’t reap real benefits, but those with the drive and confidence to go after what they care about tend to get rewarded in some way. The problem is there’s a very thin line between our spontaneous desire-inspired actions and the consensual nature they might have (or not have) when they’re being looked through another person’s point of view.

Terry Richardson and the Many Degrees of Consent

A large group of people who advocate for companies not to hire Richardson have pointed out that Wallace’s report on the New York Magazine goes out of its way to paint the image of a historically neglected kid with quite a difficult upbringing, to somewhat rationalize his actions. While I don’t feel this tries to justify his behavior, it does look to put it in the right context. It’s only fair, if we’re going to judge a man for his decisions, that we also examine the different moments that paved the road for those decisions.

In my opinion, Terry Richardson is doing what most of us would be doing if we were told, “You just go out there and do what makes you happy, express yourself, push all the boundaries you require. We’ll pay you large sums of money for it.”

When we’re left free to happily roam within our creativity and that feeling is encouraged, it’s quite easy to get sucked into our own universe. That’s how the Terry World occurs, for all its good and bad things: It’s a platform that allows a larger-than-life persona to come alive and transcend the perceived passive role of a photographer, becoming as important as the original pictured subject. In other words, Terry’s personality has grown in many instances – especially when it comes to young unknown models – into a more important focus than the actual person, thing or situation he was documenting.

Terry Richardson and the Many Degrees of Consent

So, can you really put the whole blame on a person who – in his mind at least – is trying to do what has proven to work for him on many occasions? It’s easy to go deep into a sense of self-importance when everyone allows that to happen. When something works, we keep doing it. When we notice there are things to be gained if we push the current limits, we keep pushing.

There’s always been a certain naivety about Richardson’s work, a kind of boyish nature that has certainly contributed to his success. That’s where that realness comes from in his work. He’s not afraid of taking chances and putting humanity in its crudest and most primitive nature to be captured by his camera. He’s just having fun, and most critically, a lot of people have encouraged that fun, however uncomfortable that may be for some of his lesser known subjects.

Is Uncle Terry a pervert? It’s probably safe to say yes; but then again, isn’t that what was celebrated about him in the first place? The honesty of his portraits? The boundary-pushing themes and seemingly endless playfulness? The way to ground high fashion into a raw vision of everyday urban lifestyle?

We demand total openness, honesty and transparency from our artists. We want them to be brave and explore stuff we’re uncomfortable with because we want our trailblazers to keep doing what they do best. And yet, when they push towards a direction that offends people, we want no responsibility for it. Because fuck the artist; fuck that pervert; fuck his deviant point of view and his sickening abusive methods. Right?

Terry Richardson and the Many Degrees of Consent

But what about the agents that send the very young models they represent to Terry’s studio? Shouldn’t someone sort of know what they’re getting involved in? We’re talking about one of the most famous photographers in the world; you shouldn’t be fucking surprised to be working with Terry Richardson and seeing him take things in a sexual direction. It doesn’t take a lot to know what you’re signing up for, especially if you already work in that industry.

And yet it’s hard to put yourself in the position of a girl in her late-teens, trying to make it in a cutthroat business. They don’t have to be familiar with Richardson’s work; that’s not their job. But when they’re in his studio and they’ve been told this shoot might make or break their careers, agreeing to stuff they’re not very comfortable with might seem like the only choice they have, and it’s quite an unfair and abusive position to put these girls in.

I – like Wallace, I presume – am not trying to defend Richardson, but merely trying to understand his situation and point of view.

Terry Richardson and the Many Degrees of Consent

I’ve never been a victim of sexual abuse, and because of that I can’t properly talk about it as a person who has gone through it. I can’t pretend I fully understand it, because I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been there can truly do so. I can only speak from my limited perspective, and try my best to understand the different outlooks involved.

As a comedian, it’s easy to joke about taboo subjects and exploit them, because “nothing’s off limits,” and yet I’m proven wrong on a constant basis. I spend so much time fighting the idea of political correctness, that sometimes I don’t notice that actual human beings are all the time affected by our words and actions. This situation is no exception, and if anything, it might help raise our level of awareness and the way we behave around people we’re sexually attracted to. There are many shades of grey when it comes to consent. Sometimes it takes the fall of a personal hero to notice that, but it’s on all of us to constantly evolve and change the patterns we grow up with. Empathy sometimes comes in the subtlest and most puzzling ways, and being torn on these matters is just a sign we’re learning on the job. It’s a slow process, but we’re getting there.

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